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Bad deal that’s better than no deal

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Both President Obama and his harshest critics have long agreed that a bad Iran nuclear weapons deal is worse than no deal at all.  Ironically, the actual agreement proves this conventional wisdom wrong.  Certainly, the deal could have been worse, but if its specific terms were all that mattered, it would deserve a thumbs down.  Yet because the global backdrop is crucial, this bad agreement was the best possibility for keeping Iran’s nuclear programs peaceful, and therefore improves on the status quo.  Moreover, its very shortcomings usefully clarify major problems in America’s fundamental Middle East strategy that urgently need fixing.

The key to recognizing the deal as a modest American win is realizing that U.S. allies have become the decisive swing votes on strategies for countering both Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its equally worrisome non-nuclear policies.  

{mosads}If these countries were genuinely determined to keep Iran nuclear weapons-free, Congressional rejection of the deal could be justified – notably for its verification shortcomings, and for the president’s last-minute concessions on ballistic missile and other conventional weapons sanctions. 

But after decades of pre-Obama American coddling of allied strategic free riding, the European parties to the talks have valued a deal mainly as a pretext for resuming potentially lucrative commerce with Iran.  That’s why Obama told The New York Times that their main preconditions for supporting sanctions in the first place were not goal-oriented – i.e., achieving a nuclear weapons-free Iran.  Instead, they were process-oriented – e.g., insisting that U.S. “diplomatic efforts” were “sincere.”  Russia and China, the other nuclear negotiators, are even more anxious to let Iran off the hook.

Therefore, contrary to the critics, holding out for better terms, or ending the talks and toughening existing sanctions, simply were non-starters – unless the critics suppose that unilateral U.S. curbs alone could bring Tehran to heel.

A Congressional “nay” could still be warranted by the belief that Obama could have prevailed over the rest of the world in a sanctions showdown.  But the president himself plainly disagrees, and Congressional Republicans can’t possibly believe that he will start playing harder ball either voluntarily or due to their pressure.

This foreign eagerness to resume business as usual with Iran will also, as critics charge, prevent any sanctions snap-back barring truly egregious cheating.  Although existing business will get grandfathered, renewed sanctions would choke off expansion.  Therefore, continued Iranian progress toward weaponization appears likely even before the agreement’s sunsets begin.

Yet the president is right that even this flawed agreement creates new obstacles to Iranian nuclear ambitions – and therefore deserves approval.  After all, America’s anti-terrorism policies don’t aim at 100 percent success, but at making attacks significantly more difficult.  The same common sense should be applied to the Iran deal.         

Despite these nuclear virtues, the agreement will surely worsen non-nuclear threats from Tehran.  Iran will quickly gain considerable resources for financing terrorist activities and bolstering its conventional military.  This new wealth will also help the regime improve domestic living standards and thus stay in power.  Longer term, Iranian compliance will secure reentry into global conventional weapons and even ballistic missile markets.

All the same, these prospects, still leave the case for the deal intact – if America’s core Middle East interests are properly identified.  Iran matters strategically to America to begin with mainly due to its potential to control Persian Gulf oil flows.  That’s also largely why Washington has bothered to cultivate Arab Middle East allies at all, and to station U.S. forces in the region (along, since  9-11, with anti-terrorism missions). 

Nuclear weapons obviously would magnify Iran’s threat to Gulf oil – as would stronger Iranian conventional forces.  Yet America’s energy interests are no longer best secured by countering military threats to this region – located half a world away and full of hostile and/or largely fragile states.  Even more dangerously fanciful are hopes to cure the broader Middle East’s deep-rooted economic and social dysfunction.  Instead, the nation needs a much less risky strategy aimed at reducing its vulnerability to all the main threats emanating from the region.

First, stepping up America’s own energy production revolution (including renewables output) would further boost the current global glut and further marginalize Middle East deposits.  These new energy opportunities could turn the Iran deal’s military sanctions sunsets into a high but acceptable price for slowing Tehran’s nuclear progress. 

Second, the terrorist threat should be neutralized not primarily by waging military campaigns in a region where friends and foes can shift conflict to conflict, but by truly securing the border.  However difficult, controlling America’s own frontiers is bound to be easier than controlling conditions abroad.

Third, any Iranian nuclear threat to America should be handled by a combination of deterrence and improved missile defenses.  This admittedly imperfect response is still superior to sanctions or military strikes.   

Implementing these policies still leaves both an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel and, consequently, a preemptive Israeli strike all too possible.  Both could be averted with more U.S. aid for Israeli defenses.  Although a more energy-independent America would feel less strategic need to provide this help, Americans would feel even freer to help protect Israel because of their enduring affinities for this fellow democracy.

Obama rightly views the Iran deal as a potential foreign policy game changer.  But the real opportunity is not, as both he and his critics believe, making the Middle East fundamentally more manageable.  It’s rendering this deeply troubled region much less important to America’s security and economic fortunes.          

Tonelson is a former associate editor of FOREIGN POLICY magazine and fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council.  In 2000, he consulted on the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review, and he has written widely on American national security strategy.  He now blogs at RealityChek.


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